It's not much of a nickname, but Ball-In-Play Sonny Gray has been surprisingly effective as a pitching strategy.
But there are risks, too — as the Twins' 4-2 loss to the Guardians demonstrated so vividly on Saturday night at Target Field.
In an era when pitchers pile up record numbers of strikeouts, Gray has recently emphasized pitch economy and quick outs, aiming for weak contact and low pitch counts rather than tempting batters to chase pitches out of the strike zone.
On Saturday, it worked brilliantly for six innings and an efficient 69 pitches, with Gray limiting Cleveland to one run while striking out only Mike Zunino, twice.
Then came the seventh.
With the Twins holding a 2-1 lead, Gabriel Arias' leadoff single was no cause for alarm — until Gray's first-pitch curveball to Will Brennan didn't break enough. Brennan caught the hanger with the barrel of his bat, and his 406-foot blast cleared all the seats and landed on the right-field plaza.
The curveball "is arguably my best pitch. You throw three fairly quality pitches to [Arias] and he hits a single, so now you're back in the strike zone early," in hopes of forcing a ground ball that might turn into a double play, Gray said. "And he got one. It doesn't happen [to me] very often."
In fact, it hadn't happened at all this season to Gray, the only starter in the big leagues to open the season with 60 homer-free innings.
"I don't care [about the streak]. It happened. If I go another 60-some innings without one, that'd be great," he said. "It just happened. And it happened in a bad situation for us."
Yes, the righthander hadn't surrendered a lead on a homer since Luis Robert's grand slam for the White Sox last July. So it hardly seemed fair that his first one of 2023 would be so damaging.
Perhaps it was inevitable, though. Gray entered his 250th career start with the lowest ERA in the American League this season, yet has not been credited with a victory since April. Why? An oft-absent offense is largely to blame; the Twins have scored more than four runs behind Gray only three times in his dozen starts.
"We have to find other ways to put runs on the board. They pitched us tough today," said Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, who spent the afternoon in the emergency room after an attack of diverticulitis. "It's the difference of a pitch here and pitch there of us walking away winning the game."
This time, lefthander Logan Allen was responsible for quieting the Twins, at least once Jorge Polanco said hello in the usual way. Polanco, leading off the bottom of the first, turned on a two-strike, down-the-middle fastball from Allen and drove it into the Guardians bullpen — incredibly, his third home run and fifth extra-base hit in seven career at-bats against Allen.
But the Twins never advanced another baserunner as far as second base until the fifth inning, when Christian Vázquez and Donovan Solano each doubled, giving the Twins a 2-1 lead.
Brennan erased that lead with one swing, and Steven Kwan tacked on one more run with a ninth-inning home run on an 0-2 pitch from Jorge López, who has given up five homers in his past three innings.
"I just need to get better. It's my personal thing to come here every day and try to get better," said López, an All-Star last summer. "I just want to be great out there like everybody else."
Baldelli was far more bugged by the Twins' failure to pad their lead than the Guardians' ability to do it. Kyle Farmer and Kyle Garlick opened the sixth inning with singles. Ryan Jeffers bunted them to second and third, and Willi Castro smacked a hard line drive toward left field.
But third baseman José Ramírez snagged it and tagged third base for a rally-killing double play.
"We could argue that everyone did exactly what they were supposed to do, and that should generally lead to some runs, and the game's completely different," Baldelli said. "But in our game, it's not going to happen like that every time. It's unfortunate when you play in a tight ballgame and you execute the game very well and you walk away with nothing."